I am closing my reading on The Love Charm of Bombs and considering picking up Desert America. The former has been taxing in a good way and I have the feeling the later may be the same.
Lara Feigel minces no words about “love” and “war.” This language which touches our hearts and desire for cause can often be reduced to “sex” and “violence.” Literary conventions, though not untrue, are only a part of the story, usually the universal part of which we can all relate and despite how broken we are can lend credibility to our nobility and the strength of our feelings. Today we know to call such a thing myth.
“And they call that virtue and this sin.” Those are the mythic words Graham Greene uses to describe his relationship with Catherine Walston, the mythic and universal woman of Achill who was also the very particular and sinful woman from London. Greene knew that he struggled with the nobility of the universal and the sins of the particular and he set the thing to paper In The End of the Affair.
Greene called his lovers Maurice and Sarah, but unlike the book, the real Maurice Bendrix was no unbeliever and the real Sarah Miles was no saint. Greene’s move from unbelief to Catholicism was accomplished years before meeting Walston. It was his religiosity that brought her to faith at a time when he was only distant and paternal, but in time Walston’s child like faith grew to be an intellectual one and the man who was her mentor became her equal. He was comforted by her presence and sustained by her conversation. That is the upfront factual reality that was turned to a myth Greene shares with many men….a woman becomes a savior. The line between a savior and a lover is often very thin, however and that was the tension played out in Greene’s novel. Feigel shows us the story is not uncommon, though Greene and Walston’s is one of the more famous.
A myth does not need so much in the way of sin, at least not the sin of adultery. It is a peculiar progression that took me from reading the Feigel work to wanting to read Martinez’s Desert America. It is because both have one thing in common. They deal with the truth of fact rather than the truth of myth. Both works also deal with sin. Feigel’s work is centered in London and Greene’s account of his affair is also set here, but the affair itself had its greatest vibrancy in remote Achill, an Irish island with a fierce landscape. Such places are always good for myth.
America is a land of fierce landscapes. Prior to picking Feigel, I was reading Solace in Fierce Landscapes and On Zion’s Mount. Both works deal with the mythology of a place, whether it is a very real one to be found in Arizona’s Monastery of Christ in the Desert (Solace) or the invented one of Utah’s Mt. Timpanogos (On Zion’s Mount.)
Greene and Walston needed to escape London to have their myth. They chose Achill. They are not alone in needing such fierce places. This is what makes me a little intrigued by Martinez, who deals with a new land and a new mythology of a fierce place.
As Americans, we know the myth well, and it is not really very new. White Christians and Mormons flew westward over rivers and mountains to find a haven. Some were looking for gold and others fleeing persecution. The story was echoed in sacred texts. The Hebrews crossed the Nile and ascended Mount Sinai to come back down into the valley of the Promised Land. Settlers would cross the Mississippi and Missouri, ascend the Rockies and come down to the likes of California and Utah. They created a myth, but not one without sin as they practiced the greed of the gold rush and decimated native peoples.
That myth is still being played out, but it has other players now. Martinez looks at these divergent groups….wealthy Anglos, Mexican migrants, and Indians. Two of those groups are running away from the likes of high unemployment, drugs, and the urban landscape of places like New York and Chicago. As they run away, they displace those already there and bring their sins with them, just as Greene and Walston did when they ran from their marriages in London to Achill.
Martinez writes about poverty and drugs following the players into places like Santa Fe New Mexico and Marfa Texas. Thy myth is still there, but it is only one part of the reality. I have read that some are critical of Martinez for concentrating too much on the social divisions and drug problems that mark the desert of the American West, thinking he needs to also concentrate on the myth. The problem with this is that myth and fact use two different languages and you can’t write a book in two languages. You can’t have “love and war” be marred by the shabbiness of “sex and violence.”
Greene and Walston (or at least Greene) needed the mythology of “being in love” rather than Feigel’s account of sex just as today’s border patrol need a mythic “war on drugs” rather than Martinez’s account of police actions of failed policies dealing with petty thugs. Both are ways to express the one reality, but the languages are too different to be reconciled. Having read the mythic accounts, I will now continue to read the shabby ones. After that I will return to fiction; I hope whatever I choose has a good myth.
Image: A Joshua Tree, common in the locale of Martinez’s book and in the American myth. Courtesy Wikipedia